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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Shedding light on headlights

I’ve often marveled over automotive technology.  It’s progressed during the last decade to a point where it is virtually impossible to buy a bad new car or truck.

Nevertheless, newer cars I drive have varying and sometimes disappointing headlight performance.  Although every new vehicle facing me at night has bright-white, sometimes blinding, illumination-makers, the same lights on vehicles I’m driving often marginally reveal my path during nighttime drives.

I thought maybe the cumulative effect of my consecutive birthdays played a role in this perceived lack of guiding light (and sadly, it does), but a recent Automotive News article by Stephanie Hernandez McGavin suggests that automakers have not yet perfected the headlamp.

She writes, “The auto industry’s headlights shine brighter, farther and more ornately than ever.”  But according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good.  Over the last two years, the agency has conducted four studies concluding that most headlights on new vehicles it has tested are not good enough.

The list of cars ranked with “poor” or “marginal” headlights is diverse, representing cars and trucks in foreign, domestic, luxury and economy classifications.

Headlights have rapidly evolved from tungsten sealed beams to halogen to the current brighter light emitting diode (LED) offerings.  The added brightness is a good thing, but the insurance institute claims that many headlights come off the factory line poorly aimed which causes glare and negates the LED advantage.  And the illumination and reflectorization design varies.

In their studies, only four models out of 100 received a “good” headlight ranking and over forty models were deemed “poor.”  During testing, engineers measure the distance of light on low and high beams, going straight and around curves.  Glare to oncoming vehicles is also judged.

For most cars, drivers are actually “overdriving” their headlights driving 60 miles per hour at night with low beams — meaning your stopping distance exceeds the distance that is fully illuminated ahead of you by your headlights.  Fortunately, most of the time, crucial emergency situations are not developing outside your well-lit zone.  Sometimes they are, however, contributing to the fact that about half of all crashes occur at night even though far less than half of all driving occurs then.

While shortcomings in design and initial aiming are blaming factors across all model lines, the institute is concerned that the best lights are only available as part of the more expensive tech packages offered in luxury makes. 

One factor that may improve the situation is the declining cost of LED lighting as it becomes more prevalent.  New technology such as OLED (organic light emitting diode) and Surface LED also promise to lower cost and improve efficiency. 

The institute is suggesting fixes like headlight-leveling technology that would re-aim vehicle headlights that are, for example, misaimed due to an attached heavy trailer. Adaptive beams that swivel to light the way through curves are also recommended by the institute.  These systems light a driver’s entire path and avoid excessive glare to oncoming vehicles.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Association is studying adaptive systems now being used in Europe and Japan; United States regulations don’t yet permit their use here.

Consumers can upgrade older vehicles with bright LEDs from aftermarket sources.  But if you make that change, pay attention to proper aim and be sure to dim within 500 feet of a vehicle approaching from ahead.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at